Dynamic identity in a disaster situation

Get free weekly news by e-mailIn an article aimed at exploring the human dynamic of business continuity, MikeJacobs looks at how individual identity can be affected by disaster and how that can impact on response teams.

There can be no doubt that the dynamics of human identity are immensely complex, and this article is not attempting to be a post-modern discussion about the ‘sense of self’. It is looking at some of the components of individual and group identity, and how these can be affected by events that are likely to result in the invocation of business continuity plans.

Most business continuity plans written are based on response to an incident by teams allocated particular roles and responsibilities. Whilst there is much discussion of which departments should be called on to populate these teams, the effect that an incident can have on individual and group dynamics is largely overlooked.

Individual identity
The first step is to recognise that individuals are seldom defined by their roles at work. They will have powerful external influences - friends and family, past experiences, cultural and religious beliefs - which all contribute to the formation of their identity.

The importance of different facets of identity changes over time, reacting to internal and external drivers. What is most important from a business continuity perspective is that, as a result of this, conditions of adversity can cause rapid and unpredictable changes in an individual’s identity. Identity as a response to events can quickly become polarised into an ‘us’ and ‘them’ model.

Group identity
An event that has an intentional cause, e.g. a terrorist event, can cause both the formation of new elements to identity, and create a rapid shift in the importance of existing elements.

These stimuli can be both internal and external, and although an individual may consider themselves as part of one group, other members of that group may now see them as part of an altogether different group.

Powerful examples of this were seen in both London and New York following the respective terrorist attacks. In each case politicians and other key leaders were quick to praise the resolve and strength of residents of the affected city, and to criticise the terrorists. There was an immediate separation into ‘us’ and ‘them’, although who ‘us’ and ‘them’ were was open to interpretation. At its most basic, ‘us’ was seen to be the white, Christian Western World, and
‘them’ was anyone of the Muslim faith - although it was obvious to most people that the Muslim faith wasn’t a homogenous ‘them”’, and that the majority of Muslims were as appalled as all other faiths at these acts. Overlapping this was the ‘us’ that comprised residents of the affected cities or, at a broader level, anyone in the affected country.

Business continuity
So how does this affect business continuity? The key here is that parts of identity can become more important in defining an individual to other people than to themselves.

Most businesses have staff that are a mix of ethnicity, age and sex. Their individual identities - or others’ perception of their identity – at work may change as a result of events completely outside of that environment. Similarly, a rapid shift in group identities may see them excluded from groups that they may long have considered themselves part of, and included in groups they feel they have no connection to. This can lead to additional problems in response teams, as people are thrust together in intense, high pressure situations.

More localised events, especially a disaster that affects a company site during working hours with injuries or possibly fatalities, can generate an externally perceived ‘us’ that groups the employees of a company as a single entity.

However, this ‘us’ can swiftly be broken down into very different components. For example:

- Those who should have been on-site at the time of the disaster but weren’t (for whatever reason);

- Those who are uninjured or slightly injured (especially if they were in the locality of people who were severely injured or killed);

- Those who don’t respond as they anticipated they would (this can include both acts of heroism, and people shamed by their inactions);

- Those who were on holiday, or off sick at the time.

It is important to recognise that identity is a dynamic concept, and people will react to different events in different ways – and even differently to the same event depending on when it occurs. Some events will cause rapid and unpredictable shifts in the importance of the elements of individual identity – nationality, religion, race, etc – and have the potential to cause wholesale realignments of group identity.

No plan can predict these outcomes, and few businesses know enough about the construction of their individual staff members’ identity to predict accurately how they will change. Testing a plan is vitally important, but no testing can completely replicate the actual conditions and pressures of a real event. It also focuses on how an individual responds to the event, and not how individuals respond to each other.

When an event occurs that causes a business continuity plan to be invoked, there needs to be responsibility for someone to stop and think “How will this affect our response dynamic?”

Team leaders should be aware to watch for changes in their team members, and have a process in place for proactively resolving any issues before they become problems.

Author: Mike Jacobs, director Biscon Planning Ltd


Date: 9th August 2006 • Region: UK/World Type: Article •Topic: BC general
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